Friday, 30 April 2010
Mantanah, South Norwood
You may be hearing a lot about Thai food in the coming months. Harrods, in whose food halls I've spent many a happy afternoon (though obviously never buying anything) are running a Thai promotion from 4th May until 6th June, and there is going to be a large Thai Festival in Trafalgar Square on the 5th June. To officially kick off the celebrations, I was very kindly invited to the launch reception in the Lancaster Hotel on Wednesday, nibbling on lovely fresh Thai canapés and answering questions about food blogging from friendly but clearly baffled Thais:
"Are you press?"
"Kind of - I have a food blog."
"What company do you work for?"
"I don't, it's just me, I don't earn anything from it"
"Would you like a duck roll?"
Most of the big names in Thai food in London were there (apart from Nahm, although based on everything I've heard this was perhaps a blessing), and it was nice to chat to the people from Patara and the Mango Tree and the Blue Elephant and try their food. It all got me thinking though - where are the decent, mid-range Thai restaurants in London? I have visited the Pataras in Mayfair and Soho and they're both very good, but these are high-end restaurants and the average spend per head can creep over £50 once you add in wine. At the bottom end of the scale you can pick up a Pad Thai for a few quid from the Whitecross Street market, but this is hardly anything to rave about. The food I had in Thailand, with its bold fresh flavours, unusual ingredients and a near-catastrophic level of chilli heat, was like nothing I've seen over here, and while I can appreciate that London restaurants may have to tone down the chilli slightly, I still haven't been anywhere for around £20 a head attempting anything much more than fishcakes and rice. Still, at least fishcakes and rice are recognisably Thai. One stall on Wednesday, from a restaurant I won't name, offered me a canapé consisting of tamarind and foie gras.
"We are calling it French-Thai fusion food!" the owner beamed. "We don't eat foie gras in Thailand!" he added happily, "People think it's disgusting!". I cried inside.
So the search for decent, affordable Thai food is on. Mantanah in South Norwood has been on my list for years, but it has taken until Wednesday's prompting to actually get me off my bum and onto the rickety half-hourly train service from Clapham Junction. If I was being kind I'd describe the location as 'unassuming' and the décor in the restaurant as 'faded', but some of the best food is produced in the unlikeliest locations, as anyone who's ever been to Whitechapel will tell you. We started with some sticks of battered and deep-fried sweet potato, and something called "Pearl of Mantanah".
Way too many greasy battered potato pieces were matched with a gloopy sweet chilli sauce which if it wasn't bought in was doing a pretty good impression of something that was. Worse though were the "Pearls", which were huge wobbly balls of sago containing a miniscule amount of peanut and chicken filling. The sago stuck to the insides of your mouth and glued your teeth together like putty - it really was pretty unpleasant, like something from a bush tucker trial. They either needed to use far more filling and far less sago or just abandon the idea altogether. Weird.
Mains were scarcely better. Pad Thai (our "control" dish) was greasy and way too sweet, a poor example of what is usually a tasty dish - even Thai Square can get this right. A chicken "jungle curry" had quite a nice broth but the pieces of chicken were overcooked and chewy and the flavours hadn't been allowed to mix together for long enough - there was no chilli hit at all until I unexpectedly bit through a whole chunk of the stuff and it blew my head off. Only something called "E-sarn classic" showed any kind of promise, which although also too sweet had a nice flavour and good mix of proper Thai vegetables like pea aubergine.
I was hardly expecting the greatest Thai experience of my life in Mantanah but I just came away with the impression that nobody in the restaurant really cared enough about anything they were doing. Tablecloths were dirty, glasses marked, and a bowl of water lilies by the front door was stagnant and ugly. The food, too, was clumsily seasoned and carelessly presented - the obvious comparison to make with SE Asian cuisine in the same price bracket is Mien Tay, where every last detail of every plate is fresh and beautiful. Mien Tay may be a one off, but it at least demonstrates how good SE Asian cuisine can be while resisting the temptation to use foie gras and charge £50/head.
It's strange that Thai food in Thailand is so right, and yet Thai restaurants in London so often get it all so wrong. Strange, and frustrating. But the search goes on, and I have a few more likely contenders lined up. Come on mid-range Thai restaurateurs of London. Don't let me down again.
Thailand at Trafalgar Square is on Saturday 5th June. More details here